Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy

Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy

Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy

Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy

Excerpt

The phrase that haunts Dreiser criticism is Lionel Trilling’s “reality in America,” implying as it does that An American Tragedy (1925) represents a rather drab projection of a dead-level naturalistic vision. More than sixty years later, novelistic reality in America extends rather widely, from Norman Mailer’s not un-Dreiserian The Executioner’s Song all the way to Thomas Pynchon’s phantasmagoria in The Crying of Lot 49. Reality in America in the Age of Reagan includes Iran-Contragate, Jim and Tammy Bakker, and Modern Language Association conventions with scheduled seminars such as “Lesbian Approaches to Franz Kafka.” Not even Pynchon can rival such inventions, and at this time Dreiser is in danger of seeming drabber than ever.

Irving Howe, writing in the midsixties, at a time of rising social protest, praised An American Tragedy for its grasp of the realities of American institutions:

Dreiser published An American Tragedy in 1925. By then he was
fifty-four years old, an established writer with his own fixed and
hard-won ways, who had written three first-rate novels: Sister
Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt
and The Financier. These books are crowded
with exact observation — observation worked closely into the grain
of narrative—about the customs and class structure of American
society in the phase of early finance capitalism. No other novelist
has absorbed into his work as much knowledge as Dreiser had
about American institutions: the mechanisms of business, the
stifling rhythms of the factory, the inner hierarchy of a large hotel,
the chicaneries of city politics, the status arrangements of rulers
and ruled. For the most part Dreiser’s characters are defined
through their relationships to these institutions. They writhe and
suffer to win a foothold in the slippery social world or to break
out of the limits of established social norms. They exhaust
themselves to gain success, they destroy themselves in acts of

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.